Opinion

Citizens’ report shines light on NC role in CIA torture program

From left, Christian Stalberg, Barbara Zelter and Robert Moore listen during a press conference organized by Stop Torture Now Thursday, January 19, 2012, at the Johnston County airport. Zelter holds a photo of a detainee who is one of the cases detailed in a lengthy report from the UNC law school outlining what a team of lawyers and law students there believe are violations of state and federal laws by the employees of Aero Contractors, Ltd. A new report issued in Sept. 27,  2018 by the  North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture provides more information on the CIA program’s North Carolina connections.
From left, Christian Stalberg, Barbara Zelter and Robert Moore listen during a press conference organized by Stop Torture Now Thursday, January 19, 2012, at the Johnston County airport. Zelter holds a photo of a detainee who is one of the cases detailed in a lengthy report from the UNC law school outlining what a team of lawyers and law students there believe are violations of state and federal laws by the employees of Aero Contractors, Ltd. A new report issued in Sept. 27, 2018 by the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture provides more information on the CIA program’s North Carolina connections. tlong@newsobserver.com

When the U.S government betrays American values, what is the best response? It’s Americans standing up for those values. When that stops happening, the nation – or at least the moral, honest, humane nation we know – stops existing.

Fortunately for America, a persistent and uncompromising group in North Carolina has insisted that the government acknowledge its violation of American values and make amends regarding the use of rendition and torture after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

That group refuses to forget what the Bush and Obama administrations hoped would disappear under claims of self-defense or a desire to move on. When the government wouldn’t take action to address its own offenses, these citizens formed their own 10-member investigative panel, the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

The commission is led by Frank Goldsmith, a former civil rights lawyer in the Asheville area and Robin Kirk, a Duke professor and co-chair of the Duke University Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. The effort was assisted by the North Carolina Council of Churches and the activist organization North Carolina Stop Torture Now. The commission has delivered an 82-page report: “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s role in the CIA rendition and torture program.” The report describes the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and their being delivered – via Aero Contractors Ltd., a private air carrier operating out of Johnston County Airport – to secret CIA “black sites” abroad, or into the custody of countries that torture suspects.

Grim account

The report says of the renditions: “Aero transported at least 49 individuals, who were forcibly seized without any due process, in a manner that itself amounted to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Preparation for ‘rendition’ involved physical and sometimes sexual assault, drugging, and sensory deprivation. Rendition flights were experiences of prolonged pain, dread, and terror.”

Aero Contractors, based in Smithfield, could not be reached for comment.

TV and Hollywood depictions of U.S. intelligence efforts often cast the use of rendition and torture as necessary tactics against terrorists, or what former Vice President Dick Cheney described as working the “dark side.” The justification is that time is of the essence in preventing terror strikes and moral scruples are obstructions to the larger goal of saving lives.

But the record does not support this justification. What the record shows is that torture practiced or condoned elsewhere by the U.S. has yielded little useful information. What it has done is denied the U.S. the moral high ground in its fight against terrorists and exposed U.S. soldiers to the same brutal and dehumanizing techniques the U.S. has employed.

That is what makes this commission’s work – pursued against the resistance of the government and the general indifference of the media – so important. And it is also what makes the behavior of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr – the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee – so contrary to what best serves the nation. Burr has refused to release his committee’s full report of its investigation into CIA torture. The investigation was done under the committee’s former leader, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Obama ducked

President Obama is also responsible for the lack of disclosure about U.S. torture. He should have ordered an investigation and hearings on what happened, but in 2009 he declined to take that step, saying, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

That failure has allowed actors in torture to escape punishment. Some have even flourished, most prominently Gina Haspel, who oversaw a black site in Thailand and now heads the CIA.

It’s somehow both inspiring and discouraging that private citizens had to take up this investigation. Now it’s time for public officials to act. That can start with an investigation by the Johnston County district attorney into whether Aero’s alleged activities violated state law. State Attorney General Josh Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper should explore the need for a state investigation. And, finally, Burr should stop withholding the full truth and — as the citizens’ commission has done — start casting a bright light on the nation’s descent into the dark side. Otherwise, this nation and its values remain at risk of going there again.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

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